By Paul Thompson
Northeast News

True to their word, Kansas City, Missouri police department officials continue to answer difficult questions in the wake of a failed Hispanic Citizen’s Academy in the Historic Northeast.

Envisioned as a three-part, multi-hour course at St. Anthony Parish (318 Benton Blvd.), the academy was supposed to provide an opportunity for positive engagement with Kansas City’s Spanish-speaking population. The event was to include an opportunity for judgment-free, face-to-face interaction with Chief of Police Rick Smith, along with informative presentations from the Mexican Consulate, Guadalupe Center, Kansas City Public Schools, Mattie Rhodes Center, and a plethora of Historic Northeast stakeholders.

There was only one hiccup: no one showed up.

The setback hasn’t deterred KCPD from wanting to engage with Kansas City’s Hispanic residents, however. Now armed with empirical evidence that there is more work to do to make that population comfortable interacting with police, the department is even more committed to cultivating those connections. Thousands of people read the story in the Northeast News about the aborted Hispanic Citizen’s Academy, and dozens commented under the story’s link on Facebook, proving that there is interest in the subject.

On Tuesday, June 26, Northeast News managing editor Paul Thompson brought a selection of those comments, questions and suggestions to KCPD’s downtown headquarters for a sit-down with Community Interaction Officer Coordinator Jason Cooley and Westside Community Action Network (CAN) Officer Chato Villalobos, both organizers of the planned citizen’s academy.

What follows is a collection of reactions and responses from Cooley and Villalobos to real social media posts submitted to the Northeast News Facebook page after publication of our original story about the unsuccessful Hispanic Citizen’s Academy. Comments are presented in bold, while KCPD responses from Cooley and Villalobos are displayed in italics below.

1. KCPD has worked with ICE right here in our neighborhood, conducting things like “drivers license check points.”

Villalobos: “Yeah…not with ICE though. We don’t do driver’s checkpoints with ICE.
We do those based on stats. It has nothing to do with demographics, but I understand that demographic probably has a higher percent of people driving without licenses. But if you can’t get a driver’s license and you can’t get insurance, that affects all people.”

2. This is why no one went…KCPD is actually very good with Hispanics… but they are afraid ICE would show:

Cooley: “ICE was not involved with that project at all. To really drive the point home of the length that we went through to really make it a trustworthy event: traditionally the citizen’s academies are hosted at police stations or at the academy. We went to the community; we hosted it at the church, which is a safe place. Comfort, refuge, worship and learning – that’s what people go to churches for.”

“We had roughly 15-17 stakeholders at the initial meeting to set this up. These are the people that work with that community on a regular basis, so it wasn’t just a KCPD initiative; it was KCPD, it was the Mexican Consulate, it was Mattie Rhodes, it was Guadalupe Center, as well as a host of other neighborhoods.”

Villalobos: “We brought in the people who are field subject experts in working with those demographics. As far as their fear that immigration was going to be a part of it; we would never tell them, ‘You have nothing to worry about.’ We validate their anxieties, because of what we see in national media. They watch national media, and they have a right to be concerned.”

“These are people who live in our communities, and we wanted to share information with them.”

-Cooley suggested that the primary concern when KCPD works with ICE are individuals who are narcotics dealers, traffickers, or otherwise involved in felonious activity.

“Everybody has the right to live and flourish in a safe community, and we all believe in that.”

3. What better way to change things than to get involved?

Villalobos: “We partner a lot with youth programs, and we partner a lot with homeless outreach. At the CAN Center, we partner a lot with the community that serves those demographics.”

Cooley: “Like Chato said, this wasn’t a new initiative.”

“In addition to all the great work that the Westside CAN Center is doing, I know that East Patrol has done a few self protection classes in Spanish to that community to help them feel safe. They’ve done block watch training in Spanish. Kansas City No Violence Alliance did a NoVA presentation in Spanish.”

Villalobos: “Historically, we’ve worked very well with the Mexican Consulate.”

“The Community Interaction Officers out at South Patrol – Division Officer Whitehead and Officer McCall – are actually hosting a movie night. This will be either their second or third one: Saturday, July 31, at 8 p.m. out at the South Patrol campus, they’re going to be showing Coco.”

Cooley: “Anybody that has an idea for an outside-the-box approach, or wants to host an event and invite us…hey, we’ll take it. If they organize, we’ll show up, we’ll be there to engage and just have a good, positive interaction with that community.”

4. Would’ve went but I’m leaving to service.

Cooley: “We’re sorry we missed you, but we completely understand. All day long, thank you for your service. First and foremost. It’s in their heart to serve, and that’s exactly what police officers do: we serve our communities. That individual wants to serve our country, so by all means, we get it.

5. -I think people are just scared of being close to a police officer. But I imagine that KCPD do these outreaches to let us know about security and how we can cooperate with them. I would like to go if the meeting is schedule again.

-Wasn’t able to make it to the first meet but was hoping i could still attend the last 2 sessions. People are scared and feel intimidated by the police whether it be KCPD, KCKPD, IPD, it doesn’t matter. I told family about the event but most were skeptical…I think baby steps is the way to go. A family friendly event sounds nice. Not many can find child care and if kids can attend to hang out with officers and maybe sit in a patrol car, maybe people would show up. I know my 4yo would enjoy it, I would too tbh.

Cooley: “Our door is always open. We don’t care if we have to go do this in someone’s back yard, basement, living room, whatever it takes. It doesn’t even have to be in a citizen’s police academy forum; it can just be a forum, just talk. We can just sit down and have cookies and coffee, that’s fine. It’s just us getting together and seeing the human side of each other, and working together to improve the communities.”

Villalobos: “And validating those fears and anxieties. We’re not going to come there offended at all by those things.”

“We are trying to do a good job of being approachable.”

Cooley: “Our preference is to have the human touch; have the positive touch. Be in the same room together…you learn so much more from each other when you’re able to see and hear and touch. However, respecting the fear that exists, what they’re dealing with, we totally understand that. Maybe we do a Facebook forum? Maybe that’s how we engage.”

“We still want to spend time with this community, and work together to make life better…even if it’s in a digital realm.”

6. This is interesting because we teach English to over 300 people a night at St. Anthony’s and most of them are Hispanic. Maybe it should be introduced to them by people they have trusted for many years.

Villalobos: “I agree, that would be great.”

Cooley: “Everybody’s busy, however, I would like the community to know how much work went behind the scenes on this. We’re talking seven months of planning, having all of our Powerpoint’s translated into Spanish, our handout materials translated into Spanish, pulling together all the guest speakers to come in and speak, which is all on an overtime basis. The Chief of Police himself was there to greet and shake hands and welcome people to the event. I really want the community to see our heart on this: there was no sting, there was no set-up, this was just a true, good old-fashioned engagement opportunity. We understand, but please see our heart on this.”

7. maybe reaching out through a literature campaign at some of Northeast resource centers might get that participation up.

Villalobos: “Oh man, those are lifelong relationships. I used to work at the Guadalupe Center.”
“You go into a home and they’re in crisis – whether it be domestic violence, or a runaway, or substance abuse – and you see there’s kids, right away I was trained at least to say, ‘All right, we’re not just here to arrest the husband. I talk to the husband while he’s in handcuffs. ‘Hey when you get out, Mattie Rhodes has these counseling groups. You can do anger management, or we can do substance abuse counseling. I want to see you succeed as a father. Will you give me a call after you get out of jail?’”

-“Before I was even a cop, those people were already in the trenches working with that demographic.”

Cooley: “It was relationships that brought the whole beginning of this process together. If we didn’t have the relationships, the Mexican Consulate would not have been on board. Mattie Rhodes wouldn’t have attended. Guadalupe would not have attended. The school district would not have attended. KCPD does a very good job with out relationships. Are we perfect? No. But we do pretty darn good, and by virtue of those relationships is how this all evolved in the first place.”

“We actually just updated all of our handout materials, all of our crime prevention materials, and all of that information is translated into Spanish. We’re going to be handing that out at movie night at South Patrol.”

8. What if you had a trusted block watch contact you could call when you witness suspicious or criminal activity instead of KCPD? That contact (me or your block watch captain) would call KCPD for you so you remain anonymous.

Villalobos: “We’re all in this together. If somebody has trust issues and decided to call someone who’s not law enforcement, and then that person would call law enforcement so that we can get that information; I would have absolutely no problem with that. Everybody has their reasons for feeling whatever anxiety they feel, and everybody justifies it their own way. The most important thing about community is that they take care of each other. We want to get to a place where people are more informed about how to police themselves, you know, and how to monitor and prevent criminal activity. There are a lot of best practices for residents to practice, and if there’s somebody who’s willing to step up to be that liaison until people see that, ‘Hey, this department does care, because whenever I report something there was a response’…that’s all that needs to be emphasized. The more information we have, the more efficient we’re going to be in addressing criminal issues in neighborhoods. I’m okay with it; it doesn’t have to be me.

Cooley: “The traditional citizen’s police academy requires a background check, registration, all that stuff. We intentionally did not require registration, and we didn’t ask for anybody’s name, which obviously makes it more difficult to plan because we didn’t know how many people were going to show, right?”

“How strong is that block captain connected in with their community? That’s the first question that needs to be asked. Do they themselves speak Spanish? One hour was actually dedicated to bringing in the President (of all the neighborhood associations).”

“The idea was to try to help them make the introductions, and help them break down those barriers as well.”

“We’re all for that, but the neighborhoods need to start breaking down barriers in those communities as well, and start getting them invited and integrated. You do that through positive social events.”

“We totally understand why they didn’t show up; we get it. But we’re all still here.”

9. I DON’T TRUST THE COPS! Why should they? We’re ALL intimidated by police in low income areas. ALL are targeted and profiled. No police show for hours, most days, when you call. I have hookers (with) Johns in front of my home, while children play outside. I’ve got security footage, and the cops asked ME to convert the video to wmp file. Don’t you have a group of people AT the police station for that?

Cooley: “I would say to that individual, number one, we need to sit down and just have a chat. We’re available to do so. Let’s talk about our differences. There might be some points that are valid, which we on our side want to address in order to build relationships and make sure we’re providing the service that we need to provide. Some of it might just be perception stuff that we can clarify and bring better understanding to it. But nonetheless, that’s an individual we want to engage with and talk and try to improve relationships.

Villalobos: “It looks like somebody who personally disenfranchised, personally disconnected, and these are the people that we want to prioritize. We need a relationship with this person; they obviously care. Being aware of that much going on in their community, we can talk. They could be one of our biggest allies in regards to the calls for service, 911, the time that it takes to get an officer.”

“We’ve always succeeded and been more efficient when the community works with us, and we work with the community; when we’re sitting at the same table.”

10. We even talked about how many immigrants stay quiet when they see illegal activity going on because they are scared to call the police. They would rather turn the other way than have an officer pull up to their door and start asking questions. No, it’s not smart but it’s reality.

Villalobos: “We have a lot of people who are without status who we have a wonderful relationship with and who do constantly report crime in Spanish. I could tell you story after story. Homeless undocumented people have given us pertinent information to help us press charges on somebody who killed a police dog.”

“In my career, I’ve been a part of a lot of high-profile crimes with the help of the immigrant community and the undocumented community. So as far as I’m concerned, if there’s somebody out there who feels that way, this is why these academies and these initiatives are very important: so that they can feel empowered to participate.”

FINAL THOUGHTS (not a reader social media question):

Villalobos: “Regardless of status, if there’s a community that doesn’t have trust or a relationship with their police department, they are the most exploited by career criminals. Property crimes, violent crimes, whatever: they are the most exploited.”

Cooley: “We encourage the feedback, even if it’s negative. Otherwise we don’t learn and evolve.”